Magic Medicine? The wonders of nanomedicine

by Daniel Kohane

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Imagine being able to treat your medical condition immediately when you need to, safely, and without input from anybody else. No waiting to see your doctor, no wondering whether that extra dose of medicine will be too much.

Sound like magic? Well, that is exactly what many of us scientists in nanomedicine believe is right around the corner. And we are proposing the use of a “wand” to make it happen.

“Sometimes you can achieve big things by thinking very small.” Daniel Kohane at TEDMED 2014
“Sometimes you can achieve big things by thinking very small.” Daniel Kohane at TEDMED 2014

Here’s how it would work in a patient with chronic pain. Such a patient would likely have pain that would wax and wane throughout the course of the day and during the night. His/her need for relief would also fluctuate, depending on activity and effort level. Currently, oral pain pills would generally be used to treat the condition, which would take effect sooner or later, and might or might not make the patient adequately comfortable. In some cases, the medicines could make the patient too comfortable, or effectively stoned. The wand could make all of this so much better.

The wand would actually be a laser, or another powerful light source. The patient would place the laser over the painful area and press a button, firing near-infrared light into the affected tissue, where the patient’s physician had injected or implanted a reservoir of drugs. That reservoir would have been built with light-sensitive nanostructures (like those in my TEDMED talk) so that it would respond to a specific light fired by the laser by releasing those drugs. So, using the wand would cause pain medications to be released at the site where the pain is – and only there; no getting stoned with this treatment. And by varying the intensity and duration of the light beam, the patient would be able to determine exactly how much pain relief is delivered, and for how long.

This approach need not be limited to pain; it could be used for a wide range of diseases, in many parts of the body. And the wand need not use light. Scientists have shown that similar effects can be achieved with oscillating magnetic fields, ultrasound, electricity, and many other energy sources. In fact, people are now looking at drug-releasing devices that would not even require the wand component – there would be indwelling sensors on the device that could sense when a drug needed to be released. Alternatively, the devices could have computerized programming that would enable complex patterns of drug release suitable for a particular disease. That process would remove the burden from the patient of having to self-administer injectable drugs several times a day.

As nanoscience gets increasingly sophisticated, it opens up possibilities for medicines that are specific, targeted, with fewer side effects, and easier to deploy. While the potential is not truly magical, they are certainly parts of this field that previous generations of physicians, scientists, and patients would have thought impossible.

At TEDMED 2014, Daniel Kohane, Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and a Senior Associate in Pediatric Critical Care at Boston Children’s Hospital, revealed some of the amazing work he’s doing with nanoparticle technology to transform the power, safety, and specificity of drugs.